On the surface, it's difficult to define José Rijo's MLB career as anything but an indisputable success. Over the course of 14 seasons in the big leagues, 10 of those as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, Rijo won 116 games, made an All-Star team, won a World Series ring, and was named the MVP of the Fall Classic.
But how would Rijo's career be remembered if he didn't develop elbow problems during the 1995 season? If the right-hander remained healthy, Rijo may be referred to as the best pitcher in the National League who wasn't a member of the Atlanta Braves' historic starting rotation.
Former Reds RHP José Rijo could have been a Hall of Famer.
Throughout the five-season period between 1990 to 1994, José Rijo trailed only Greg Maddux in the National League for most strikeouts. The four-time Cy Young Award winner bested Rijo by a single K (894 to 893) over those five summers. Rijo's 21.1% K-rate ranked third in the senior circuit trailing only David Cone and Sid Fernandez who each tossed 400 fewer innings than Rijo.
The strikeout race wasn't the only category where Rijo nearly topped The Professor. Rijo's 2.64 ERA over that time frame was once again only narrowly eclipsed by the 2.61 mark produced by Maddux. Naturally, Rijo's 149 ERA+ number ranked second in the league behind you know who.
Need more evidence? His 67 wins were the fourth-most in the National League placing him behind only Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Doug Drabek. In addition, the 1,042 frames tossed by Rijo ranks seventh among all senior circuit hurlers over those five campaigns.
Reds RHP José Rijo was dominant during the early-90s.
Despite his complete dominance, Rijo's accomplishments were never acknowledged to the extent of his peers. The Dominican native made his lone All-Star appearance in the strike-shortened 1994 season when he compiled 9-6 record with a 3.08 ERA while leading the league with 26 starts.
Only twice would Rijo finish in the top five in the Cy Young balloting. This is an incredible injustice considering he led the league in win percentage (.714) and WHIP (1.08) during the 1991 campaign placing fourth in the final voting. Astonishingly, he paced the NL in strikeouts (227), K/9 rate (7.94), and WAR for pitchers (9.2) in 1993 while only securing a ridiculous fifth-place finish.
Unfortunately, disaster struck during the 1995 season. Compiling an uncharacteristic 5-4 mark with a 4.17 ERA through 14 starts, José Rijo was placed on the shelf with bone spurs in his pitching elbow. However, the news would soon be much worse.
It was later determined the right-hander suffered a partial tear of the UCL tendon in his elbow requiring Rijo to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery. At the age of 30, a brilliant career was completely derailed.
Rijo would not appear in another major league game until he made an improbable comeback to rejoin the Reds beginning with the 2001 season. Rijo made 44 appearances, including nine starts, over the next two years before calling it a career following the 2002 campaign at 37 years old.
Even though he doesn't have the hardware like some of his contemporaries, there's no debate that for five years, Jose Rijo was one of the best pitchers in the game. Finally, he can, at least, sleep easier at night knowing he has as many World Series rings and one more Fall Classic MVP than his nemesis Greg Maddux.